Texas Gov. Rick Perry doubled down Tuesday on his belief that all U.S. aid to foreign countries should "start at zero" — though he made it abundantly clear that military aid to Israel would "increase under a Perry administration."
His remarks — made at the 2011 Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum — elicited rousing applause and appeared to allay concerns among some pro-Israel forces that, as president, Perry would cut aid to Israel.
"I am adamant that any discussion of foreign aid should start at zero," Perry told RJC members. "But let me be clear. Israel is our strategic ally. America long ago ended traditional foreign aid to Israel. Strategic defense aid to Israel will increase under a Perry administration."
The Republican candidates’ stance on aid to Israel became a flashpoint among Democrats and many Jewish voters earlier this year, after Perry, as well as Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, stated at a debate that all U.S. aid to foreign countries should start at zero. (Following the debate, Perry’s campaign attempted to walk back his comments with regards to Israel, while Romney’s camp said that the candidate was referring solely to Pakistan.)
For weeks, Democrats have been highlighting the foreign aid issue in an attempt to drive a wedge between Jewish Republican primary voters and the top candidates.
For that reason, some found it surprising that aid to Israel – which comprises a central cornerstone of the U.S.-Israel relationship – was barely mentioned by the other Republicans who spoke at the RJC forum, specifically Romney and Gingrich, both of whom notably avoided the topic.
Democrats quickly pounced on the candidates for failing to clarify their beliefs.
"I am deeply disappointed that Governor Romney refused to state whether he supports the [Memorandum of Understanding] between the US and Israel in his address this morning to the Republican Jewish Coalition," Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. "If Governor Romney isn’t willing to support Israel’s military and foreign aid package before an audience of pro-Israel, Republican Jews many of us believe he simply doesn’t support it!"
The National Jewish Democratic Council’s president and CEO, David Harris, said that he’s "frankly astonished" the candidates stayed silent on U.S. assistance. "I was fully expecting them to flip flop on this issue in front of this audience, making our job at least at little bit harder. But on this central issue of the American pro-Israel agenda they utterly failed the test and the silence was deafening."
Added a Democratic Hill staffer who agreed to speak only on background: "It’s clear that Romney and Gingrich made the strategic decision to not mention the foreign aid package to Israel. For a serious presidential candidate to come out in any address to the Jewish community – especially to RJC’s top supporters – and not give the strongest level of support for Israel’s aid is mind-boggling."
A source close to the Obama campaign lashed out specifically at Romney for his failure to address the issue.
"This was a perfect opportunity for Mitt Romney to disavowal his support for zeroing foreign aid to Israel," said the campaign source. "Instead he stayed silent."
At least one Republican attendee also found it odd that the candidates failed to address a topic that has long topped the pro-Israel community’s agenda.
"This forum would have been an excellent opportunity to refute the DNC smears and falsehoods about the GOP candidates’ views on aid to Israel," said Jeff Berkowitz, a Republican consultant who served as a White House Jewish liaison under the administration of George W. Bush. "Although I am surprised only Gov. Perry took the opportunity to do so, this audience knows that Republicans near uniformly support aid to Israel and it is only among Democrats that the issue has unfortunately become divisive."
In an interview in advance of the event, RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks expressed confidence that each of the candidates would attempt to "put to bed the political smears by the" Democratic National Committee and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-Fla.) "that the leading Republicans want to cut aid to Israel."
However, in a follow-up interview yesterday, Brooks dismissed the controversy surrounding aid to Israel as nonsense.
"The only one who had a perception problem on foreign aid was Perry as a result of his comments at the debate," Brooks said. "He laid that to rest unequivocally as predicted."
As for Romney, "the notion that [he] wanted to cut Israel aid was always meritless. Hence all the attacks and smears by Debbie Wasserman Shultz and the DNC are wrong, factually inaccurate and designed to distract the Jewish community from all the problems with Barack Obama."
Other Jewish observers also said the issue of foreign aid to Israel is being used as a political weapon by Democrats.
"The nonsense about foreign aid came from the NJDC and the Wasserman Shultz crowd," said a senior official at a pro-Israel organization who requested anonymity. "It’s not as simple as foreign aid nonsense."
Among Republican Jewish voters, the supposed controversy is irrelevant, the source said.
"While the foreign aid discussion might have some resonance with folks who aren’t as likely to be supportive of a Republican or dismissive of Barack Obama, with this crowd its just noise on the sidelines," the source said.
Democrats, however, say that the candidates’ silence on foreign aid speaks to a larger issue – the fiscal chokehold that the Tea Party has placed on Republicans.
"They’re catering to a constituency in the Republican primary electorate," said a Democratic source on the Hill. "Otherwise they would have talked about aid to Israel. It used to be an easy talking point for Republicans and it’s very troubling that they’re making a strategic political decision not to mention" the issue.